SINGAPORE – Will 2013 be the year when one or more of the intractable disputes in the seas off China explode into armed conflict, involving the United States in a wider war to protect its Asian allies? The disputes are about ownership of islands, and jurisdiction over strategic maritime zones and valuable resources.
The answer should be a resounding “no.” Such a war, with no guarantees that it could be contained, would have unpredictable but potentially catastrophic consequences. The major protagonists in these disputes — the U.S., China and Japan — are respectively the world’s three largest economies, with a strong mutual interest in maintaining peace to boost their trade, growth, investment and jobs.
The other economies in Northeast and Southeast Asia are closely tied to those of the major players. They would also suffer badly from military conflict, even if it was confined to the region. The shock to business confidence in Asia, a driver of recovery in the still-fragile global economy, would be shattering.
In the South China Sea, where Beijing’s territorial claims are most extensive, an increasingly assertive and militarily powerful China is challenging the right of other nations to occupy atolls and reefs it claims. The rival claimants include U.S. ally the Philippines, as well as Vietnam and Malaysia.
Beijing is also seeking to enforce controls on fishing in the South China Sea, and bans on developing energy and mineral resources in the waters, seabed and subsoil it claims, unless they are done with Chinese approval.
But it is in the East China Sea that maritime tensions are currently most acute. There, U.S. ally Japan is trying to fend off a Chinese challenge to its administrative control of the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, which lie about midway between Taiwan and Okinawa in southern Japan, where the U.S. has important military bases.
Both sides have recently scrambled jet fighters and confronted each other’s patrol boats in waters surrounding the islands. The commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Adm. Cecil D. Haney, warned recently that conflicting sovereignty claims in the East and South China seas, which inflame nationalism, are especially troublesome “friction points” and can be “ripe for miscalculation.”
With the Asia-Pacific area anxious about a clash — either accidental or intentional — Japan, encouraged by the U.S., has made some diplomatic efforts to ease tensions with China. It sent an envoy to Beijing and proposed a summit or high-level talks.
However, in calling for calm, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that there was “no room for negotiations” over the sovereignty of the Senkakus, something Beijing insists must take place with Tokyo. Both sides appear to be staking out their vital or “core” national interests, while building their military strength.
China will “never give up” its core territorial and security interests, said Xi Jinping on Jan. 28 in his first formal presentation of foreign policy since taking over as leader of both the ruling Chinese Communist Party and the armed forces in November. A summary of his speech was published in state media.
He seemed to take a noticeably tougher approach than his predecessor Hu Jintao. In an evident reference to rival claimants in East and South China seas, Xi said that “no country should presume that we will engage in trade involving our core interests or that we will swallow the bitter fruit of harming our sovereignty, security or development interests.” He said that China would “stick to the road of peaceful development but never give up our legitimate rights and never sacrifice our national core interests.”
How will China’s new military and political leadership reconcile these two seemingly contradictory positions: advancing peaceful development while maintaining rigid adherence to sweeping maritime claims that are either opposed or not recognized by virtually all of China’s Asian neighbors?
It depends how China defines national core interests that must be defended at all costs, even by the threat or use of force. So far, these interests have been linked to quelling independence movements in Tibet and the far western region of Xinjiang, and eventually bringing Taiwan under China’s rule. But China regards the Senkakus as part of Taiwan and is increasingly acting as though its claimed sovereignty over the islands is a core interest.
Those member states of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, that are wary of China’s push into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia fear Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea will have similar core-interest status.
In such a fraught atmosphere, the U.S. must strike the right balance between deterring and engaging China. As Beijing’s policy hardens, this is an increasingly difficult balance to maintain.
The U.S. has an impressive array of naval, air and marine forces ready to defend Japan should Tokyo request assistance in the event of an armed conflict with China over the Senkakus. Whether, where, and under what circumstances, the U.S. would actually use them against China is still shrouded in strategic ambiguity.
However, in one of her last major official meetings, on Jan. 18, before stepping down as U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton assured Japan’s visiting Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida that “although the United States does not take a position on the ultimate sovereignty of the (Senkaku) islands, we acknowledge they are under the administration of Japan and we oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration.”
She added that the U.S. urged “all parties to take steps to prevent incidents and manage disagreements through peaceful means.”
The leaders of Japan and the U.S. are to hold a summit meeting in Washington later this month. Preventing a military conflict with China will be high on the agenda. Should the unthinkable occur and a military clash erupts with China as the U.S. and Japan struggle with weak economies and uncertain domestic politics, the two allies will need a plan for effective response.
Without it, the U.S. alliance system in Asia and the Pacific will be shown to be nothing more than a “paper tiger” and hopes of finding ways to counterbalance China’s assertive rise and preserve peace will be illusory.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.